Wednesday, August 8, 2012
Author: Kathryn Stockett
Genre: Historical fiction, social issues
Self-examining fiction is always an interesting endeavor: a song about writing a song, a film about making a film, a book about writing a book. Obviously, as the author is a professional book-writer, the idea of writing is something dear to their heart and familiar, which makes the description of the process very real and accurate. What The Help attempts, in contrast, is to show the power of reaching people with your voice without them seeing your face.
All the evidence of today, despite America's creed of acceptance and tolerance, leads one to believe that racism is not dead, but buried under a thin sheet. We are so acutely aware of one another's color in our attempts to ignore it that any violation of this throws us into a tizzy of denials of racism and passing anti-hate crime laws and all sorts of nonsense. Kathryn Stockett takes on the heart of the most oppressive environment for African-Americans-- Jackson, Mississippi in 1962-- to show the true subtlety of the separations in "one nation under God."
Told from three perspectives, The Help follows the lives of Aibileen Clark and Minny Jackson, two black maids and best friends, and Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan, a white college graduate and aspiring journalist. Aibileen's job is to look after two-year-old Mae Mobley Leefolt, whose mother doesn't want to be near her child. Minny, who "has a mouth on her," is fired at the beginning of the book from working for Mrs. Walters, the mother of the malicious Hilly Holbrook. Both of them think darkly of their white mistresses, but stuff down their opinions in order to keep their jobs-- one misstep could cost them their livelihoods and safety.
Skeeter Phelan, on the other hand, is a wealthy white girl whose parents own a cotton farm on the edge of Jackson-- and has been best friends with Hilly Holbrook and Elizabeth Leefolt since college. She gets a job writing a cleaning column for the local paper and enlists Aibileen's help, as she has never cleaned a day in her life and her own maid, Constantine, disappeared without explanation from Skeeter's very controlling mother. After coming to know Aibileen a little better, Skeeter is compelled to write about a book about what it's really like to work for a white woman as a maid in Jackson.
Stockett's first novel, The Help is a creative, enveloping read about a topic that was not well-known outside of the South. She draws from her own experiences of a maid close to her family when she was young to create the characters of the maids around Jackson, and is keenly aware of the social climate of a city like Jackson. The struggles of housewives to raise their children in the 1960s pales in comparison to the struggles of the black families to raise their children on dirt-low wages and poor working conditions-- little better than slavery in practicality, despite being a hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
And yet, for all the activist intentions, Stockett does not make the African-American people into a heroic race. There is doubt, cruelty, spite, bitterness, and pettiness juxtaposed with the courage, longsuffering, and beauty. Minny's husband is abusive and alcoholic, and Aibileen's husband left her for another black woman with no warning. With all their achievements and failures thrown together into the facts, Stockett does what many novels fighting racism fail to do: make their heroes human.
Skeeter and her mother are a classical dichotomy: a rebellious child of the 1960s, questioning the standing laws, with a mother who treats the African-Americans who work for them as little better than mentally handicapped animals. Her mother, Charlotte, is prim and proper and constantly hounding Skeeter about how to dress and do her hair and act in public, while Skeeter would let her frizzy hair go and her clothes be mismatched. By the end of the novel, their love-hate relationship is also extremely, pulsingly human, making one wonder whether Stockett has drawn from her relationship with her own mother.
Aibileen, too, is a wonderfully deep and conflicted character. She clearly loves the white children she raises as her own, while nursing a bitterness that her own son was killed three years before the story takes place because of the negligence of a white man. Every time she holds Mae Mobley, it is clear how much more she loves this little girl than her prim and proper white mother, but we realize with heartbreak that Mae Mobley will grow up to be exactly the same as the other white housewives. Aibileen's voice is carefully hardened to protect herself, but we see the pain that she knows daily as she watches this little girl grow up in a world that tells her that the woman who raised her is dirty, diseased, stupid.
Many interesting insights regarding racism come forward in this novel, but nothing that we haven't seen or thought of before. Although the actual physical topic of the book is rather novel, the underlying themes of racism have all been dealt with in books that are, frankly, better-- like To Kill a Mockingbird. Understanding racism in the 1960s is important for our culture, but perhaps what we need more is a novel to help us understand the racism so prevalent today-- the more dangerous idea of pretending that racism is dead.
Altogether, The Help is an educating, entertaining, and fascinating read. Stockett masters the voices and accents of Minny and Aibileen, but still slips in literary turns of phrase that captivate. The organization and pace of the novel leave something to be desired, but overall the story sticks and is memorable.
And Hilly is a hilarious, ridiculous, malignant character that seems overdramatic and fictional but is unfortunately all too real.
Available for $10.00 in both Kindle and paperback, this book is very accessible and affordable, and should be available in most libraries. The movie, starring Viola Davis and Emma Stone, is an excellent reproduction, but the book holds more of the voice and power that the author intended. Somehow, reading always does.